It was still dark outside when hundreds of workers gathered in Brooklyn on Tuesday morning to once again push for a federally mandated minimum wage of $15 an hour.
This time, three years after the Fight for $15 movement was born, the target audience of the workers in Brooklyn and elsewhere across the US were politicians, instead of just their employers. The workers’ signs bore a plain but direct message: Vote for $15.
“I felt incredibly inspired to be here, in Brooklyn where it all started in November 2012,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, one of the largest labor unions in the US. According to her, the New York workers, who were part of the movement since the very beginning, are best suited to be “missionaries” to tell the story of why government needs to be part of solution to raise the wage.
This year, a wage board commissioned by New York governor Andrew Cuomo recommended that a minimum wage for fast food workers employed by chains with 30 or more stores nationwide be paid at least $15 an hour. And while wages for fast food workers are set to gradually increase to $15 an hour in coming years, many of New York City workers are still being left behind.
“We have well over a million people who don’t make $15 an hour. A million people trying to struggle to get by, and this movement shined a light on that reality and said we are not going to go on like that,” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio told the crowd as sun began to rise and light rain started to fall. He added that the Fight for $15 movement “had already changed this city and nation”.
De Blasio’s remarks were echoed by former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Fast-food, home care, child care workers: Your advocacy is changing our country for the better,” she tweeted, adding a #Fightfor15 hashtag. Earlier this year, she threw her support behind a bill proposed by Washington senator Patty Murray and Virginia congressman Bobby Scott to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020.
The fact that many US elected officials now support a $12 an hour wage is a testament to the movement, said Henry. She pointed out that politicians who previously supported a minimum wage of $9 an hour now support $12.
“If we can expand our movement and take it to the ballot box, it could be the win that pushes elected officials higher,” said Henry. Getting the issue to the ballot box means getting candidates to come out in support of the $15 minimum wage as well as getting minimum wage initiatives on the ballot come 8 November 2016.
On Monday evening, just hours before the workers rallied at dawn, SEIU announced that it had collected enough signature to get an initiative to raise California’s state minimum wage to $15 an hour on the November 2016 ballot. During the 2014 midterm election, voters in four different states voted in favor of ballot initiatives that would increase their state minimum wage.
Clinton is not the only presidential candidate to speak in support of the movement.
“I support the #Fightfor15 and a $15 federal minimum wage. Let’s get to $15 however and wherever we can!” tweeted Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, who has previously come out in support of $15 minimum wage.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who also supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, was slated to join the picket line outside the US Capitol on Tuesday morning.
“US government shouldn’t be America’s leading low-wage job creator,” said Sanders, speaking to a crowd of contract workers who cook and clean for the US government. “The federal government should lead by example and make sure taxpayer-subsidized federal contractor like Compass Group pay a living wage of $15 and allow workers to organize without retaliation.”
Compass Group, a large food service contractor that provides staff at the US Capitol cafeteria, referred Guardian’s request for comment to its subsidiary Restaurant Associates. Restaurant Associates on Tuesday said all of their wages are in compliance with current laws.
Some officials used Tuesday as an opportunity to announce new efforts to raise local wages. Cuomo used his executive authority to increase minimum wage for state workers in New York City to $15 by 2018. In the rest of the state, state workers’ minimum wage will reach $15 by 2021. Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto also issued an executive order raising minimum wage for all city’s employees to $15 by 2021.
Not only did Tuesday mark one year before the presidential election, but it was also the day of the fourth Republican presidential debate. James Powell, who works as a chef at the Senate’s members-only dining room and makes $13 an hour, would like the Republican presidential candidates like Florida senator Marco Rubio address US wages.
The issue has barely been mentioned in the first three Republican debates.
“Senator Rubio promises to create good jobs for America, but he hasn’t helped the low-wage workers who serve him every day,” said Powell. “He likes the fancy dishes we prepare, but he doesn’t care that we can’t afford to feed ourselves.”
Not everyone, however, is a fan of the movement.
As the crowd turned and marched past the municipal buildings in Brooklyn, a young African Americans woman emerged from the train station. Noticing the crowd, she paused and watched as they marched. Moments later, she shook her head and said: “It’s too early for this crap.”
It was just after seven in the morning, and the Fight for $15 had a whole day of events left.
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